How to Handle a Workplace Bully

Dear Office Mom,
I have a new co-worker. She’s only been working here for two weeks and yet thinks she has a right to boss me. She bullies me around constantly and yells at me. She is more educated than I am and doesn’t need this job. I need to work. I have to work alone with her so others do not see her behavior once they leave for the day. When managers are around she is very sweet and they just love her. What do I do?
— KJ

Dear KJ,

Thanks for writing. I know this is a difficult situation. Bullying is never acceptable. Ever. With limited information I'm going to err on the side of caution and offer additional information cause that's what I do.

Do I approach my bully?

Ordinarily, I would say approach your bully and calmly ask them to stop with a simple “Please stop” statement. However, since you work alone with her and have only known her for two weeks, I hesitate with that advice. Your new co-worker may get defensive, and you don’t know how she may react. You also don't know how she may try to spin the situation and turn it against you. Then, it’s your word against hers. Since you need your job, and she doesn't, here’s what I suggest instead.

  • Make a plan to approach either your manager or HR manager and ask for help dealing with a situation.

  • Create a list of dates, times and situations when your co-worker was verbally abusive, and you felt bullied and how it made you feel.

  • Ask to meet. Simply say, “I need your advice in handling a situation. Can we meet to talk about it?”

  • Before you meet, prepare your opening statement, such as "I want to get your advice on how to handle a situation I'm experiencing with ---. I'm feeling uncomfortable with her behavior and I thought it best to talk to you about it." This way you don't stumble all over your words trying to figure out what to say on the spot.

  • If you feel unsafe or are emotionally upset about working alongside her again, please talk to your supervisor or HR immediately and to hell with any preparation.

Is it harassment or bullying?

Most companies have policies addressing bullying and harassment in the workplace. In case you don’t know the difference, let me explain.

  • Bullying is persistent mistreatment that causes emotional or physical harm. It’s behaviors and actions that are degrading, humiliating or embarrassing.

  • Bullying is different from harassment, only in that harassment is directed at protected groups of people (as in discrimination) based on their age, race, color, disability, religion, or gender.

  • Check your employee manual for the policy which will typically state what you need to do, when, how and who to contact. Your company may have a zero tolerance for this type of behavior regardless of semantics.

Why me?

It's important that you know a bully likes to torment and control others. It’s how they mask their own insecurities. This isn’t about you specifically as much as it is about your bully needing to mistreat someone to feel superior. You were available and no one else was watching. That won’t make you feel better or minimize the pain you’re experiencing, but I mention it so you know you didn’t do anything to bring this on yourself. It’s not you.  Please reach out to family and friends for support during this stressful time. And, don't hesitate to seek medical help either. 
Have you been bullied at work? Do you have some advice for KJ? Please share your comments or words of encouragement.